Performance CreditsCompany of Voices Primary Artist
Craig Hella Johnson Primary Artist
As the Dale Warland Singers wind down their long and successful run, the scene has been wide open for a high-quality small choir performing distinctly American material. With this release, the Texas-based group Conspirare take a big step toward filling that gap. To take one detail that's indicative of the care that has gone into the whole project, note the recording location -- the group traveled from Austin to the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, an acoustically famed space in Troy, in upstate New York, on the second floor of a bank. The results are stunning: voices soar into the space but remain absolutely distinct. The program selected by director Craig Hella Johnson is accessible and innovative. All the texts reflect the somber theme of death and loss, with the opening "Requiem" mass of Herbert Howells emerging as the product of the composer's experiences in the wake of his 9-year-old son's death from polio. Yet the variety of spiritual approaches reflected in the various compositions and their texts will bring a kind of hope to many listeners. Johnson creates a new version of the way college glee club concerts were (and are) organized, running from Renaissance motets at the beginning to upbeat, familiar college songs at the end. Each of Johnson's two discs begins with a modern requiem mass partly rooted in Renaissance procedures, moving through shorter works and concluding with an accessible piece in a semi-popular idiom -- the final work on disc 2 is a song by Texas country-folk writer Eliza Gilkyson, memorializing the victims of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia but equally applicable to those of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. (Johnson arranges the song for four voice parts and piano; the rest of the music is unaccompanied.) The conservative but highly distinctive masses by Howells and Ildebrando Pizzetti offer the choir opportunities to display its mastery of blend and its ability to subtly alter choral textures in the service of expression. Sample Pizzetti's Dies irae movement (disc 2, track 2) and listen to how Johnson lets the voices of the individual altos rough up the texture a bit as the fires of judgment burn. The shorter works, mostly by major contemporary American choral composers, are perfectly executed; Eric Whitacre's "Three Songs of Faith," on poems by e.e. cummings, are a perfect counterpoint to the rather mystical suffering of Howells. The only curious thing about the recording is the double-disc sequence that times out at just over 80 minutes, including a work by Bradley Ellingboe ("Be Music, Night") that is not described at all in the booklet. It's almost as though the work was added as an afterthought, pushing the total time beyond the confines of a single disc. It's a powerful setting, however, of a poem by Kenneth Patchen, and it stands up fully to the rest of the music. Those enamored of the American choral sound may have found their new standard-bearers. And anyone involved with ministering to the spiritual needs of the bereaved should also get to know this program of music.